For the past couple of days, I've been trying to figure out a framework for how you’d change a person’s desires – a whole culture’s desires. But I’ve mostly been talking around it.
And I’m going to keep talking around it for a while, because this is frankly a difficult topic to figure out. This is a five-ish times per week blog – I’m going to be taking a lot of passes at this.
|Given the motivating example of Noble's inquiry was the awful
search results for phrases like "Black girls," I thought I'd start this
post with an image of Ava Duvernay, one of the best film
directors working in America today.
There's been some recent sociological work on the feedback loops between different online platforms and the social change it’s set off. The most hype has gone to Facebook, I’d say. Its immensely detailed databases on its users’ activity drives the most powerful advertising outreach engine that’s ever existed.
Without Facebook’s platform – the peculiar and comprehensive data mining its structure makes possible – Donald Trump would probably not be President of the United States. We know this. Nothing more nefarious than his digital campaign manager Brad Parscale negotiating a really shrewd and sweet ad buy.
A much more subtle feedback loop between a web platform and society is Google Search. I got myself a copy of Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble’s look at how the psychology of racism and sexism appears in the complex internal structures of search algorithms.
It’s a book-long analysis, and I’m still going through all the examples and the basic breakdown of them that she offers. But I can see some themes emerge in my own thinking as I go through them.
|Pictured is Brad Parscale, Donald Trump's digital chief for his 2016
and 2020 Presidential campaigns. Pictures also is his beard.
Because when you aggregate all the searches of the most hideous, grotesque people out there, you end up with the dregs of humanity guiding the leading edge of search engine results. Of course you end up with the most racist, hypersexualized, stereotyped images emerging from the top hits of your search.
Humans can be wonderful, and we have a lot of potential. But a lot of us are scum. Search is going to reflect that.
In that, Search achieves its goal perfectly. It’s used the aggregation of knowledge to organize the world for us, optimized perfectly to line the bank accounts of Alphabet Inc. I mean, answer to our every desire. Yes, that’s it.
That's the epitome of rationality – you work out the optimal path to achieve a goal. But rationality falls short of real reason.
The algorithm needs an ad hoc tweak every time someone reminds Google that an image search for “doctors” brings a first page of pictures of men. There’s nothing about the algorithm that can catch itself. There’s no consciousness of the material affects and psychological or emotional effects of its results, how it expresses vile stereotypes and cruel prejudices. Why would it? It’s an algorithm.
Here’s the disaster that Google has put us all in. Our main everyday source of information has no conscience.